by Mike Hoban
‘Ragtime’ – Based on a novel written by E. L. Doctorow. Book by Terrence McNally, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Seth Sklar-Heyn; Scenic Design by Tim Mackabee; Lighting Design by Richard Latta; Sound Design by Kevin Heard. Costumes based on original designs by Santo Loquasto and Coordinated by Molly Walz. Music Direction by Jeffrey Campos; Choreography by Jesse Robb. Presented by the Ogunquit Playhouse, 102 Main St (Rte 1), Ogunquit, ME through August 26.
Towards the end of the second act of “Ragtime”, now being given an artistically brilliant and emotionally unsettling staging at the Ogunquit Playhouse, Kirsten Scott (as Mother) delivers a breathtaking version of one of the Tony Award-winning musical’s standout numbers, “Back to Before”. The final line, “We can never go back to before,” refers not only to her transformation from subservient wife to self-actualized woman, but also to the larger issues that were changing (for the better) at the turn of the 20th century, such as the strengthening labor and woman suffrage movements, as well as the notion that “negroes” and immigrants might actually be people too.
What makes the song and that particular line so powerful – and horrifying – in this astounding production is that, given the current political zeitgeist, we may indeed be headed “back to before,” as the clock is rapidly being turned back on civil rights, immigration, worker and environmental protections by the current administration – with the full support of a third of the population, no less.
As the lyrics sung by the moneyed white folks in New Rochelle during the opening number “Prologue – Ragtime” suggests, the early 20th century sounds a lot like the (metaphorical) utopia for an increasingly vocal segment of America, as evidenced by the recent events in Charlottesville:
Ladies with parasols,
Fellows with tennis balls.
There were no Negroes
And there were no immigrants.
And that’s just the opening. The show continues with musical vignettes that introduce us to two other very different (and very separate) groups: African-Americans – in a nightclub where central character Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Darnell Abraham), a musical star in Harlem, plays ragtime piano and is preparing to right a situation with Sarah (Lindsay Roberts), the woman whom he wronged; and Eastern European immigrants, personified by Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, who comes to build a life in America with his young daughter. As the musical unfolds, the white family’s lives will become intertwined with those of Coalhouse, Sarah and their child, as well as Tateh (Josh Young) and his daughter, symbolically paving the way for understanding and acceptance of the lower classes in America.
The narrative begins with Father (Jamie Laverdiere) bidding Mother farewell as he joins Admiral Peary on a journey to the North Pole. Father puts her in charge of handling his business affairs, opening the door for her transformation. In the meantime, Younger Brother (Julian Decker) is searching for something to fill the hole in his soul, and becomes fixated on the beautiful Evelyn Nesbit (Carly Hueston Amburn), a scandalous vaudevillian who was the (fictional) Kim Kardashian of her time – if Kardashian had any discernable talent.
Back at the New Rochelle home, Mother finds an African-American baby in her garden that had been abandoned by her mother, the sweet young Sarah, whom Mother takes in along with the baby so the authorities won’t take them both away. Coalhouse – unaware that Sarah has borne him a child – has located his betrothed in New Rochelle, and sets out to reclaim her in his brand new Model T. He is stopped on his journey by a handful of racist firefighters, whose leader “puts him in his place,” by dropping the n-bomb on him and warning him to stay clear of their turf. Coalhouse holds his tongue, licks his wounds and goes to the New Rochelle house, where Sarah refuses to see him for months until she can believe that he is a changed man. During that time, Coalhouse and Sarah win over the host family, and racial barriers begin to break down, especially those of Mother and Younger Brother. Father returns from his expedition to a new world – in his own home.
All the while, the labor unions are beginning to form to fight child labor, improve sub-poverty wages and improve working conditions for factory workers in New York, Lawrence and Lowell. The factory owners push back, enlisting cops and strike busters, with many immigrants taking the brunt of the beatings. Younger brother has now found his raison d’etre as a union sympathizer and champion, despite his family business ties. And struggling artist Tateh finds himself an exploited factory worker after leaving New York with his young daughter for a textile mill in Lawrence. The plot turns even grimmer, when, fueled by another racist encounter between Coalhouse and the same racist firefighters, a horrible tragedy ensues and Coalhouse’s world is shattered as Act One closes, setting the stage for an explosive second act.
While the current political climate certainly heightens some of the emotion that “Ragtime” generates, Ogunquit’s stellar production would be remarkable even during the best of times. It may well be the best large-scale musical I have seen in my (brief) career as a reviewer. The score is performed brilliantly, the choreography is crisp and energetic, and the orchestra handles both the ragtime and operatic passages beautifully.
The cast is deep and talented, and while singling out any cast members at the expense of the ensemble seems almost unfair, I would be seriously remiss if I did not mention the two principal leads, Darnell Abraham and Kirsten Scott. Abraham’s portrayal of Coalhouse Walker is extraordinary, as he transforms from nightclub star and womanizer to a responsible, caring husband and father, at least until gross racial injustice warps him into a rage-filled revolutionary. And whether singing a duet with Lindsay Roberts (“Wheels of a Dream”, “Sarah Brown Eyes”) or the powerful “Make Them Hear You”, he has a regal presence that catapults him past mortal baritones. Scott’s performance as Mother is equally transformative, as she morphs from dutiful wife to understated but purposeful feminist, and finally realizes true love. Her aforementioned rendition of “Back to Before” is the show’s most beautiful and compelling number.
Ogunquit is 75 minutes from Boston, but the trip on the way home will fly by if you trek up to see this extraordinary work. For more info, go to: http://www.ogunquitplayhouse.org/ragtime/